Featured TC: Jaco Swart
Jaco’s work covers a variety of roles in the technical end of the TC spectrum. These roles include technologist, analyst, and consultant in the digital marketing and web development domains. He caught up with Jim Costello to discuss how he got there and where he is heading.
What first brought you into this field?
It was a bit of a roundabout way. I had a notion at high school that technical journalism might be the correct field for me to go into. I even applied to journalism school, and thankfully, I did not pass that test. Then I almost went off and studied communication science, but at the last minute I got pulled into engineering. I spent a chunk of my young career as an electronics designer. That was in a military industry – a private company – but still in a military industry. What that meant was that a good 95% of my time was involved with creating documentation. We had all sorts of specifications at the start, then we actually did a design, and then had many layers of documenting what was done and how it should be tested. So, all the engineers spent most of their time typing instead of designing. At some stage the boss said “this is not a good idea, let’s just get a tech author” and I said to him “I’ll do that”…So that’s how I got into tech authoring.
What interesting projects have you recently been involved in?
What I am currently working on makes a difference to the health of a huge amount of people. That sort of stuff is good, it gets you out of bed in the morning. Technology is changing and potentially democratising the health system. Low-cost technology is coming out that makes it possible for GPs in remote and poor areas to do tests that otherwise would have required expensive labs found in larger areas. It’s a fascinating development that I am following with interest.
Another area I am gradually moving into is business process improvement. Broadly speaking, you have processes, people, and underlying technology. It turns out that often the technology isn’t coping with the people and processes. Companies can build processes to accommodate inefficient technology, but this requires more time from the people using the technology. This time needs to be either written-off or on-charged. The software industry generally adapts better than other industries by using Lean or Agile Development approaches. Many aspects of these approaches are applicable to other business processes.
What is your involvement in these initiatives?
It starts from technical communication work but it is gradually evolving into more business analysis. Often it is as simple as seeing what repetitive tasks people are doing, where information is re-keyed, and suggesting what can be automated. Then I help to find the technology that can do this out of the box instead of a customised development. It may actually mean that they need to stop using the processes that they are using and adopt a whole new system of working. If you take the covers off you can see that staff are propping up systems with extra processes. The top levels of the organisation often don't know what is going on or don't understand, and the bottom levels don't know what to do about it.
In terms of the TC world, where do see that going? As things become more automated, is the role getting bigger, different, or smaller?
I think it is becoming different very rapidly. Where previously we could take the time to write things down and document processes, this no longer works when product development is going through faster and faster cycles – which is a huge challenge for technical communicators. I guess the opportunity that I see is that there is quite a bit of commonality between documenting and reviewing a process. Put another way, there is a lot of shared ground between technical communication and business process analysis. They basically use the same skills to find out what is happening, what is wrong, and find ways to streamline it into a logical documented process.
So you see some sort of a merge of skills and responsibilities?
Yes, I think that those two types of work can learn a lot from each other. Conceivably the number of business analysts are expanding, and at the same time tech authoring is getting more sophisticated. Technical communicators with an interest in process improvement can move into a new world without starting from scratch.